Losing Our Way: Pragmatism, Perfectionism and Education

Learning from the experience of others is one of the greatest opportunities we have as a species, yet we sometimes mistrust human experience


I explore in this paper the extent to which Stanley Cavell’s contribution to the philosophy of education is measured by his distance from American pragmatism. I wish to argue that
pragmatism and what Cavell calls ‘perfectionism’ are simply not offered in the same key and crucially that it is this stylistic or tonal difference that separates Cavell not only from his
pragmatist contemporaries but from the pragmatist picture of democracy and education as sketched so compellingly in the work of John Dewey. I suggest, in other words, not only that
Cavell is importantly distant from the pragmatists but that it is this very distance—this very ambivalence to that tradition of thought often taken as the native philosophy of America—that captures Cavell’s distinctive educational promise.


The work of Stanley Cavell articulates a national imaginary politically and culturally compelling. Moved throughout his career by the promise of a distinctively American philosophical tradition, Cavell’s chosen intellectual inheritance is the European ordinary language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, ‘underwritten’ (Cavell, 1989, p. 4), as he puts it, by the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau. Cavell wishes to establish Emerson and Thoreau as the founding philosophical voices of America. In so doing, of course, he counters standard intellectual histories that take American philosophy as firmly rooted in pragmatism. While perceptive readers of his work have continually highlighted the pragmatist motifs of Cavell’s texts—the emphasis on humanism and moralism, the engagement with finitude and temporality (Jenner, 2013, p. 126)—Cavell himself has always been uncomfortable with pragmatism’s dominance of the American philosophical tradition. Thus, we have an American philosopher decidedly in tension with America’s quintessential philosophy.

Due in large part to the careful interventions of Naoko Saito and Paul Standish, Cavell’s work is being read more and more in recent years as a rich if unlikely resource for philosophers of education. I use the term ‘unlikely’, of course, because of the peculiar resistance of Cavell’s prose to easy or uncontested paraphrase. It is by now an accepted fact of philosophical and literary scholarship that Cavell’s writing is difficult—that it is challenging, complex, intricate, intractable, obstinate, testing and tough—andt hat’s for the reader with more than a passing familiarity with the writings of his widely diverse philosophical forbears (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger; Ludwig
Wittgenstein and John Langshaw Austin). Certainly, there is a profound sense of struggle in Cavell’s writing, of intellectual labours enacted directly and unflinchingly in his reader’s presence. Any attempt from philosophers of education to bring the philosopher’s complex oeuvre into conversation with educational concerns has had of necessity to pay careful attention to this unique and, at times, this uniquely maddening poetic prose—to this persistent literariness, and to this deliberate difficulty of technique and method.

Of course, this self-conscious difficulty is rooted in a number of Cavell’s philosophical commitments. It is a feature, firstly, that he relates specifically to the writing of philosophy in America. Picturing Emerson’s language as continuously in struggle with itself, Cavell writes that the transcendentalist thinker continuously labours ‘as if he is having to translate, in his American idiom, English into English’ (Cavell, 2005a, p. 8). Difficulty is a feature, secondly, that Cavell relates to philosophy’s ‘modernist’ condition. As early as 1967, in his essay ‘A Matter of Meaning It’, Cavell had argued that all modernist art works—his examples ranged from Pop Art to the theatre of Beckett to the music of John Cage—were characterised by ‘the possibility of fraudulence’ (Cavell, 1976, pp. 213–227); and just as there is no standing discourse that explains or justifies what modern art is, there is no standing discourse that accounts for the practice of philosophy. The implicit suggestion here is that philosophy must continuously place into question and affirm its own identity. Because of its vulnerability to ‘false seriousness’, it must work to manage continuity with itself. Thus, the writing of philosophy, Cavell affirms, ‘is difficult in a new way’ (Cavell, 1976, xxiii).

An equally important context for any discussion of Cavellian difficulty is the intimate connection between his style of writing and the moral outlook he wishes to defend—that of moral perfectionism. Moral perfectionism is founded on the idea that there is an unattained but attainable self that one ought to strive to reach; this is an idea that Cavell traces from Emerson to Nietzsche to John Stuart Mill, and detects traces of in Rousseau and Kant. Ironically, what critics sometimes interpret as an ‘aversiveness’ or even as an ‘obfuscation’ in Cavell’s own style is partly explained by this perfectionism—by this guiding idea that we must continually fight towards expressiveness and that we are morally responsible for making ourselves understood by each other. Mindful of this moral responsibility, written expression in the perfectionist mode cannot merely signify the clear formulation of texts and ideas but must enact a deeply personal work of self-critique and self-transformation (Shusterman, 2007, p. 209).

Importantly, positioning this self-consciously difficult oeuvre in a recognisably American tradition has been a consistent ambition of Cavell’s philosophical career. As he works to foreground the difficulty of American philosophy in general, Cavell makes his own plea for a place in the American canon. He wishes to be read as an American philosopher, one with a distinctively American sound and a distinctively American set of preoccupations and themes.

Bearing fully in mind this intellectual self-concept, and foregrounding the question of writing style throughout the ensuing discussion, I explore in this paper the extent to which Cavell’s contribution to the philosophy of education is in fact measured by his distance from American pragmatism. I wish to argue that pragmatism and what Cavell calls ‘perfectionism’ are simply not offered in the same key and crucially that it is this stylistic or tonal dif-
ference that separates Cavell not only from his pragmatist contemporaries but from the pragmatist picture of democracy and education as sketched so compellingly in the work of John Dewey. I suggest, in other words, not only that Cavell is importantly distant from the pragmatists but that it is this very distance—this very ambivalence to that tradition of thought often taken as the native philosophy of America—that captures Cavell’s distinc-
tive educational promise. Turning firstly to the cross-currents of concern between Cavellian perfectionism and scepticism, I discuss the philosopher’s career-long explorations of the fraught self/other relationship. This is a relationship which Cavell understands both as a hampering anxiety and as a standing necessity of our human lives. My purpose in highlighting these explorations is to underline the philosopher’s still-emerging significance
for liberal educational ideals.

Scepticism & Perfectionism

In his 2010 autobiography, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, Cavell writes of scepticism as a daily anxiety. Scepticism is, in Cavell’s heartrending words, ‘the reminder that I am not, and I am alone, that, break bread together as we may, we will sleep in our own dreams, and never fully awake’ (Cavell, 2010, p. 539). An only and thoughtful child often left to his own devices, scepticism assumed for the young Cavell a very personal truth. Fraught relationships with his immediate family—with his father, in particular, who could be cruel and dismissive — instilled an early sense of constitutional separation, of difficult distance between self and other.

In more standardly philosophical terms, what is in question in the sceptical problematic is an essential limitation when it comes to knowledge of other people. In the tradition of modern epistemology inaugurated by Rene ́Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy and continued in the writings of John Locke, fundamentally in question is the grounds of our certainty; the classic philosophical sceptic questions whether we can ever really be certain of the existence of other things or other people. In Cavell’s contemporary writings, scepticism takes an idiosyncratic twist emerging as an everyday challenge requiring not argumentative or intellectual refutation but lived acceptance—‘acknowledgment’ in his guiding term.

I wish to argue in what follows that Cavell’s philosophy of perfectionism is deeply rooted in this anxious picture of self and of language. Interestingly, Cavell is notably light-footed when it comes to this particular connection; he doesn’t hammer the point that perfectionism evolves as a response to the sceptic’s burden. Still, as always in his work, there is a continuity of thought in these contexts perhaps all the more powerful because understated. In his own words, to begin with, Cavell writes of perfectionism:

Moral Perfectionism’s contribution to thinking about the moral necessity of making oneself intelligible (one’s actions, one’s sufferings, one’s position) is, I think it can be said, its emphasis before all on becoming intelligible to oneself, as if we were subject to demands we cannot formulate, leaving us unjustified, as if our lives condemn themselves. Perfectionism’s emphasis on culture or cultivation is, to my mind, to be understood in connection with this search for intelligibility, or say this search for direction in what seems a scene of moral chaos, the scene of a dark place in which one has lost one’s way (Cavell, 1990, p. 4).

Not exactly a moral theory, then, perfectionism for Cavell is a moral outlook picturing the self on a continuous quest of perfectibility. In this context the self is drawn on a journey to a further, higher, or more cultivated state. Perfection is never the goal; rather, the progression from one self to the next is conceived as ongoing and interminable. Perfectionism is defended against both deontology and teleology as Cavell seeks neither actions defendable as universally good nor actions maximising the good for all persons. What is in question most pertinently is the intelligibility of the self to others.

With this focus on understanding and right orientation, perfectionism embodies an almost Platonic aspiration towards the ideal self. The aim always is to recover from lostness and confusion and to find one’s way towards a new and personally won reality which establishes, in the same achieved moment, a firmer footing for others. This idea of conversion or transformation—more specifically still, this idea that as you are converted or transformed you acquire a responsibility for the conversion of others—is of course a recurring metaphor in the philosophy of education in general. We see it most obviously in Plato’s allegory of the cave but we see it more subtly in the work of the Brazilian educationalist, Paulo Freire (witness his Marxist call for emancipation and the development of critical consciousness) and in the work of the American philosopher, John Dewey (witness his pragmatist insistence on the links between individual experience and democracy)

But returning to Cavell: for him perfectionism’s essential features are registered in Plato—but they are registered also in such diverse figures as Aristotle, Locke, Emerson, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Freud. By Cavell’s lights these figures hold in common ‘a disappointment with the world as it is’ and ‘a desire for reform or transfiguration of the world’
(Cavell, 2005b, p. 2). In other words, these figures hold in common a preoccupation with lostness, with certain experiences of disenchantment. Interestingly, it is with reference to these very same experiences that scholars of education have been moved to highlight Cavell’s philosophical promise. Rene Arcilla, for one, has argued that in perfectionism’s stress on ‘understanding oneself and one’s world’ a distinctive call for learning is articulated. The true value of a liberal education lies not in its direct preparation of students or young professionals for society, Arcilla expands, but in its potential to bolster students or young professionals in those difficult moments when society seems distant or far away—and when those same students or young professionals sense themselves disorientated or fallen. Liberal education in this perfectionist mode, as Arcilla imaginatively captures it, ‘should be based on an appreciation that it is only in response to such falls that we may each form a valued individuality’ (Arcilla, 2012, p. 166).

Thus, at least part of perfectionism’s promise for the educator lies in its open recognition of life’s difficulties and disappointments, and we might suggest in this context that perfectionism as an educational outlook is very much in sympathy with the sceptic’s burden. For Cavell as philosopher of education, our lives together and in language are never certain or assured but are always in need of attentiveness and labour. As students oftentimes lost in our various schools or communities, we are called always to return to the ordinary, to invest what we say with personally-won meaning, to bring back our words to the here and now. This is ‘the truth in scepticism’, as Cavell holds on to it, a truth that calls for a perfectionist response as careful as it is committed.

Scepticism and Pragmatism

Given this extended and torturous involvement with the anxieties and necessities of scepticism, and given, moreover, this ongoing plea that we recognise scepticism as a characteristic tragedy of the human, it is hardly surprising that Cavell remains uncomfortable with pragmatism’s dominance of the American philosophical tradition. In the philosopher’s hearing, pragmatism emphasises the need for activity, for utility, for problem-solving, and for progression; and in so doing the signature philosophy of America completely downplays our constitutive anxieties of self and language. With its own suite of emphases and priorities, Cavell argues, pragmatism consistently fails to assess the human anxiety—the human disappointment—so characteristic of our lives in language. In emphasising what he perceives as the failure of pragmatism to adequately capture daily struggles of expression and experience, Cavell contrasts the pragmatist sense of human life with that articulated by Wittgenstein. He writes:

The human existence portrayed in Philosophical Investigations, as I see it, is one of continuous compromise with restlessness, disorientation, phantasms of loneliness and devastation, dotted with assertions of emptiness that defeat sociability as they seek it [ . . . ] Pragmatism is surely a grand relief (I may say a godsend) in an emergency caused by superstition, bias, idolatry, magic, or another darkness of ignorance, as when the young doctor in Bleak House puts the best available intelligence into his caring of Esther in her terrible illness. But in the incessant, inattentive forces and effects of ordinary exchanges in which most of life is spent, where we sense ourselves lost, our intelligence baffled, a further reflectiveness is in demand; Wittgenstein calls it understanding, the understanding it is philosophy’s vocation to identify and prompt us to (Cavell, 2005b, p. 161).

‘Restlessness’, ‘disorientation’, ‘loneliness’, ‘devastation’, ‘emptiness’, being ‘lost’, being ‘baffled’: these are, for Cavell, essential experiences of the human and they are simply not registered by an unreflective and scientistic pragmatism. As Cavell has it, ‘[Pragmatism] seems designed to refuse to take skepticism seriously, as it refuses—in Dewey’s if not always
in James’ case—to take metaphysical distinctions seriously’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 221). Cavell further contends that pragmatism ‘misses the daily, insistent split in the self that being human cannot, without harm to itself (beyond moments of ecstasy) escape’ (Cavell, 2005a, p. 5). We are back to his formative idea that scepticism is not something to be solved or to be escaped from but something to be acknowledged, to be lived.

To bring Cavell’s position into relief here, we might think of his pragmatist contemporary Richard Rorty who no doubt would deflate such characterisations of the human by labelling them ‘uninteresting’ or ‘pointless’; Rorty would simply not worry about any ‘alienation’ or ‘dispossession’ prompted by limitations of language or expression. On a political level, neither would Rorty worry about conflating Emerson and Dewey, happily re-describing both thinkers as representative ‘philosophers of democracy’ in America’s nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Meanwhile, Cavell’s critique of pragmatism prompts a very careful dividing line between Deweyan democracy and Emersonian perfectionism. Indeed Cavell considers these philosophical outlooks fully incommensurable—even if he is more likely to express himself here by saying that for any such attempts at direct intellectual involvement (of Emerson with Dewey or of Wittgenstein with Dewey) he wishes to ‘suspend his applause’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 215).

Against this care and circumspection Douglas Anderson has objected that Cavell in practice misses James and Dewey as important resources for understanding Emerson. In Anderson’s reading, ‘Deweyan democracy as a way of life is considerably richer and seems to me to complement, not reject or escape, Emersonian perfectionism, understood as an ongoing attentiveness to the state of the soul’ (Anderson, 1993, p. 79). More critically still, Anderson advances that Cavell’s avoidance of Dewey’s affinities with Emerson is in fact ‘un-American’, that it is seriously and even ironically flawed. Cavell’s flaw is ironic, Anderson continues, ‘because Cavell redeems Emerson by pointing to a tradition of European thinkers —Heidegger, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein’ (Anderson, 1993, p. 69, emphasis mine).

For any thinker seeking to inherit a distinctly American philosophical lineage Anderson’s criticism cuts deeply. And on Anderson’s point, indeed, one might cut even deeper and contest the fully American pedigree of Cavell’s Emerson. After all, Emersonian transcendentalism is spiritually and terminologically rooted in the German Idealism of Kant and it is Emerson’s re-working of Descartes’s cogito that Cavell seeks primarily to foreground in his reading of ‘Self-Reliance’.1 To pile further criticism on Cavell, Paul Grimstad has argued in a more literary vein that Cavell and Dewey, despite apparent differences between their naturalist and sceptical outlooks, share deep affinities in their interpretation of Emerson. Drawing on Russell Goodman’s rich exploration of American philosophy’s roman-
tic roots, Grimstad urges that Emerson shares with Dewey an open-ended, experimentalist attitude, a continual concern with criteria and composition in fact taken up in some of the earliest essays of Must We Mean What We Say? (Grimstad, 2011).

But perhaps the most extended challenge to Cavell’s pragmatist/perfectionist divide is provided by Colin Koopman in his 2009 book Pragmatism as Transition. Koopman urges that perfectionism and pragmatism boast essential similarity not difference. Squaring up to the Cavellian view that pragmatism, in its eagerness to valorise science, loses completely a sense of the tragic—of the human—Koopman advances a pragmatism fully rooted in the activism of Dewey yet fully cognisant of human frailty. Focusing on a meliorism wholly characteristic of the pragmatist as well as the perfectionist enterprise, Koopman urges that ‘methodic intelligence’ is much less central to Deweyan pragmatism than Cavell would have his audience believe. More important on Koopman’s Deweyan schema are inflections of hope and improvement, inflections illuminating in turn perfectionism’s ongoing promises of transfiguration and perfecting. Such promises are as important to Dewey as they are to James. ‘I have been arguing throughout this book’, Koopman writes, ‘that pragmatists are above all concerned with melioration—with how we can make our lives better than they presently are’ (Koopman, 2009, p. 145).

Framing his argument in terms of the teleological/deontological opposition continually hampering modern ethical thought, Koopman presents his criticisms of Cavell in the more general service of ‘a pragmatist perfectionist ethics’, one ‘that is Cavellian (and Emersonian) as much as it is Jamesian (and Deweyan)’ (Koopman, 2009, p. 145). Koopman’s wider critical project—that of illuminating a distinctively American pathway beyond the deontological/teleological impasse—is manifest in his conclusion that both pragmatist and perfectonist ethics ‘[are] not so much about determining what is right or wrong in advance of action as [they are] about the effort to live better lives where there are no rules guiding us in advance’ (Koopman, 2009, p. 149).

Perfectionism and Pragmatism

Granting the argumentative force of Koopman’s account, and conceding his central concept of meliorism as highly salient for the ethical project of Rorty as well as Cavell, I would nonetheless maintain for any comparison of pragmatism with perfectionism the potentially productive differences. I would urge that pragmatism and perfectionism are simply not offered ‘in the same key’. These are Koopman’s words, interestingly, and in his stirring book on pragmatism as a mode of transition they are used to capture the disjunction he himself hears between the music of Rorty and Rawls (Koopman, 2009, p. 170). I would argue that the tonal differences between pragmatism and perfectionism are sounded most clearly in Cavell’s readings of Emerson and, correspondingly, that a productive way forward in this
debate emerges from an examination of both philosophers’ style.

When Cavell reads Emerson as a writer of philosophy, formative ideas are those of struggle and strain. Again and again Cavell sounds Emerson’s ‘difficulty’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 7), his ‘inexhaustibility’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 6), the relentless ‘battle’ and ‘burden’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 54) of his prose.2 Emerson’s famous essay, ‘Self-Reliance’ (Porte, 1983), is itself interpreted as a study of philosophical writing as Cavell hears in Emerson’s remark, ‘Every word they say chagrins us’, the everyday exhaustions and failures of trying to say exactly what we mean, the courageous acknowledgment of language’s disappointment and despair. Writes Cavell: ‘This struggle for a language which, let us say, promises honesty (expresses, hence scrutinizes our desires, so far as we are able to read our desires) is relentless and endless for one who aspires to write philosophy’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 3). That Emerson’s prose, like the prose of Thoreau, endlessly aspires to the condition of poetry—that every sentence for Emerson aims to be fully self-contained—is Cavell’s way of framing the transcendentalist ambition as one that is equally literary and equally philosophical. Cavell writes further that Emerson’s prose ‘‘is not poetry but his sentences aspire to, let’s say, the self-containment of poetry’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 4), that ‘The prose [of Emerson and Thoreau] is a battle,
using a remark of Nietzsche’s not to become poetry—a battle specifically to remain in conversation with itself, answerable to itself’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 17).

But why exactly such struggle and strain? Why exactly is Emerson so burdened? Cavell’s answer is inflected with moral as well as political concern as he urges as a central ambition of Emerson’s writing its preservation of the moral urgency experienced by any figure recognising the constitutional separation of every self from every other. Again, in other words, the problem comes back to scepticism and other minds. This is an anxiety that
Emerson shares with Wittgenstein, Cavell urges; if Emerson will demand that words call for transfiguration or aversion, then Wittgenstein will plead that words are to be led home, as if already in exile. Of both philosophers Cavell is apt to say that ‘both writing and writer are to be read’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 27). What Cavell means by this statement is not altogether easy
to grasp. Latent at least is the idea that in the practice of reading we take on or contest what is written, as well as the person who writes, in the moral perfectionist promise that through confronting another’s words we are ourselves to be educated, transfigured, transformed.

It is noteworthy that some of the most sensitive readers of Cavell (Anderson, Grimstad and Koopman among them) have worked to elide the substantive philosophical difference between pragmatist and perfectionist ethics, to maintain deep philosophical affinities between Cavell’s Emerson and the Emerson as inherited by Rorty, by Dewey and by James. One can appreciate why these readers have been called to respond in this way.
There is every reason to encourage a conversation between pragmatism and perfectionism and to follow cross-currents of thought between and among the classical pragmatists and transcendentalists. I would press, nonetheless, on the signature differences. On this contrary view, it is important to take Cavell seriously when he questions whether there is, in fact, any use in calling Emerson a pragmatist. It is important to pay attention to the tonal as well as the stylistic differences.

On the distance between Wittgenstein and pragmatism, here is Cavell from an early essay of Must We Mean What We Say?

Wittgenstein’s role in combating the idea of privacy . . . and in emphasizing the functions and contexts of language, scarcely needs to be mentioned. It might be worth pointing out that these teachings are fundamental to American pragmatism; but then we must keep in mind
how different their arguments sound, and admit that in philosophy it is the sound which makes all the difference (Cavell, 1976, p. 36).

Bearing this particular passage in mind we might concede that yes, indeed, Koopman is right to identify in perfectionism a pronounced melioristic strain. Cavell’s call that we move from our present to our future selves is not entirely discontinuous with Rorty’s call that we liberate ourselves from ossified vocabularies and outworn narratives and celebrate instead our strength, our freedom, our flexibility. Perhaps one could make a fruitful connection between the role of the other in Cavell’s perfectionist pairings and the role of the strong poet in Rorty’s liberal democracy. Still missing from Koopman’s account, I would urge (and from those accounts in general that would bring pragmatism and perfectionism together), is an attentiveness to Cavellian perfectionism as an ongoing and very anxious process, a struggle—a task—with no guarantee of completion. Audibly significant in this process are murmurings of confusion, disappointment and despair. In his recent reading of Cavell and James Agee, Paul Anderson captures these murmurings very well; writes Anderson: ‘[t]he dramas of grief and the possibility of overcoming it never completely banish the worried voices of doubt in Cavell’s work; negative voices linger productively in his texts
. . . ’ (Anderson, 2013, p. 134). We might suggest that such voices operate at an entirely different register to the straightforwardly self-reliant Emerson as presented at least in the writings of Rorty. If in philosophy it is the sound ‘which makes all the difference’, in sum, then pragmatism and perfectionism are only uneasily aligned.


Undoubtedly, the burdens of sound, style and self-expression weigh heavily on Cavell. Such labour testifies not only to Cavell’s modernism or even to his perfectionism but to his life-long desire to involve his writing in the procedures of ordinary language philosophy. Following Wittgenstein, Cavell recognises the limited and limiting nature of our human utterances; the gap between our world and how we describe it; the frailty, in general, of our ‘forms of life’. Cavell writes obsessively of Wittgenstein’s call to bring words back ‘from their metaphysical to their everyday use’, as if it might be the difficult ambition of a modernist philosophy, in Paul Jenner’s fitting words, ‘to improvise a sense for them’ (Jenner, 2002).

With particular attention to philosophical style and sound, I have been suggesting throughout this paper that Cavell is an important figure in the philosophy of education not because he has a solid sense of education’s purpose—whether we conceive of such purpose in terms of emancipation or flourishing or preparation for the democratic life—but because he appreciates precisely why the process of education might be so difficult. In his perfectionist view, education is an ongoing process of losing and finding one’s way via the address and the provocative presence of another. It is of the very essence of such finding, however, that it is never guaranteed; rather, it is a continuous task that demands deep engagement from both figures involved. Thus at odds with pragmatism’s liberating contingency, Cavell holds to a sophisticated essentialism where the moral perfectionism of individual and community is a matter of dedicated and steadfast striving. Returning ourselves through conviction and commitment to the everyday contexts of language and behaviour, to an ordinary now inflected as extraordinary, our lives for Cavell are pictured from the vantage point of a romantic and ongoing quest.

To conclude, therefore, the exertions and self-defeats that Cavell takes care to register in his writing align him with a decidedly non-pragmatist strain of American work. As Richard Shusterman argues, writing for Cavell is not merely the setting down of arguments and ideas ‘but a deeply personal, deeply ethical work of self-critique and self-transformation’. No doubt in anticipation of the charges of deliberate obfuscation continually levelled against the philosopher, Shusterman continues: ‘if one challenged his ‘aversive’, difficult style as an obstacle to democracy’s egalitarian aims, Cavell might counter that an imposed accessibility or easy style would be false to the struggle for self-knowledge and self-transcendence that is equally central to democracy’s project’ (Shusterman, 2007, p. 209). Thus, Cavell’s perfectionist outlook carries a democratic burden that calls for ongoing and precarious involvement. What is in question in this process is a continuous willingness to test the very boundaries of human experience and expression—a continuous willingness to really mean what we say and to fully attend to the meanings of others. Only through such difficult conditions of precarity and test—such anxious experiences of finding and losing—might the self as learning subject be appropriately acknowledged and addressed.


Aine Mahon, School of Education, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
Email: aine.mahon@ucd.ie


  1. See especially Cavell, ‘Emerson, Coleridge, Kant (Terms as Conditions)’ and ‘Being Odd, Getting Even (Descartes, Emerson, Poe)’, both essays collected in In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Cavell, 1989).
  2. Elsewhere Cavell writes of Emerson’s writing that it is intended ‘to enact its subject, that it is a struggle against itself, hence of language with itself, for its freedom’ (Cavell, 2003, p. 73).
  3. These ideas are developed in Chapter 2 of Mahon, 2014.


Anderson, D. (1993) American Loss in Cavell’s Emerson, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 29.1, pp. 69–89.

Anderson, P. (2013) Agee after Cavell, Cavell after Agee, in: A. Taylor and A. Kelly (eds) ́ Stanley Cavell, Literature and Film: The Idea of America (London and New York, Routledge).

Arcilla, R. V. (2012) Perfectionism’s Educational Address, in: N. Saito and P. Standish (eds), Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups (New York, Fordham University Press), pp. 148–168.

Cavell, S. (1976) Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Cavell, S. (1979) The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Morality, Skepticism, and Tragedy (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Cavell, S. (1989) In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago, IL,
University of Chicago Press).

Cavell, S. (1990) Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago, IL, The University of Chicago Press).

Cavell, S. (2003) Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press).

Cavell, S. (2005a) Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge,MA, Harvard University Press).

Cavell, S. (2005b) Responses, in: R. Goodman (ed.), Contending with Stanley Cavell (Oxford, Oxford University Press), pp. 157–176.

Cavell, S. (2010) Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford, CA, Stanford University

Grimstad, P. (2011) Emerson Discomposed: Skepticism, Naturalism, and the Search for Criteria in ‘Experience, in: R. Eldridge and B. Rhie (eds), Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies: Consequences of Skepticism (London and New York, Continuum), pp. 163–177.

Jenner, P. (2002) The Philosophy of Stanley Cavell: Its Context and Early Development (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Nottingham).

Jenner, P. (2013) Attachment and Detachment in Cavell and Santayana, in: A. Taylor and A. ́
Kelly (eds) Stanley Cavell, Literature and Film: The Idea of America (London and New York,

Koopman, C. (2009) Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty (New York, Columbia University Press).

Mahon, A. (2014) The Ironist and the Romantic: Reading Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell(London, Bloomsbury).

Porte, J. (ed.) (1983) Ralph Waldo Emerson: Lectures and Essays (New York, Library of America).

Shusterman, R. (2007) Putnam and Cavell on the Ethics of Democracy, Political Theory, 25.2,
pp. 193–214.

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